This two-part series reflects upon AAPI experiences in Classical Studies. Part 1 is catalyzed by the author’s personal experience teaching race & ethnicity in antiquity in the context of the ongoing surge of anti-Asian violence in the country. Part 2 will reflect upon the shared experiences of students and scholars of Asian descent in Classical Studies through a series of interviews.
“Do you know about your Penn Law School colleague Amy Wax?,” a friend texted me in January, as the semester was starting.
“Blocked it out,” I thumbed back. I had, in fact, dimly seen the news, but the idea that a professor at the same university where I was excited to be newly teaching might be publicly rejecting the civic fitness of Asian Americans like me had, frankly, been too much to contemplate. “Good mental health strategy,” my friend responded dryly.
To say that there was such a thing as racism in classical antiquity would strike most modern readers as odd. However, if we examine what racism means, it is not as striking. The modern connotations of “racism” often instantly call up differences in biological features such as skin color. Historians of antiquity, such as Frank Snowden, have examined ancient evidence in search of racial hatred, working from these modern assumptions about what “race” is. Given those assumptions, Snowden concluded that the ancients did not have an idea of racism or hatred of black people more specifically.
One of the fascinations occupying Classical Studies in North America and Western Europe during the 1980s and 1990s was the way images refract the particularities of societies that produce them. One look at the imaginary of sixth- or fifth-century Athens would provide you a blistering array of human forms: doughty warriors, mourning women, drunken gods; the young and the old, Greek and barbarian. This last pair seemed especially interesting at the twilight of the Cold War.